People Are Good, But Stupid – A Maxim For Life

A while back, I ended up playing a game of Psychosis – a board game with questions loosely based around psychology studies, some of which are even still in-date. A more interactive element comes from group activities where Player A gets to answer a question in secret, while the others guess their answer. Usually, these take the format of “So tell me, __________, what is your favourite colour?” – but mostly a bit more interesting than that tepid example.

So I was asked, as you do in the game, “So tell me, ____________, do you think people are A) Mostly good, B) Mostly bad”. I think it may have been more of a scale, but I forget the precise details.

Do I think people are, generally speaking, good or bad?

That sparked off a bit of a debate, as these people know me quite well.

On the one hand, I display a huge amount of cynicism toward people. I generally believe the worst in them. I know the harm they cause, and my cynical reaction is to literally expect it at every turn. If someone is evil, I don’t seem to treat it as a mind-blowing exception to the pattern. On the other hand, came one argument, someone wouldn’t think such a thing if they didn’t fundamentally believe humans were, deep-down, good… but perhaps misguided. A social cynic would have to care about people, and care about their goodness, to rant and rave when they see it going awry.

And I suppose they got it right. I believe people are fundamentally good. I just also believe they’re too stupid to really know what that means.

Everyone wants to be “good”. The connotations of that term alone drive people toward it. It’s positive, it’s beneficial, it’s virtuous and admirable pretty much by definition. But even ignoring the definition, people try to act good – no-one truly wants to cause excessive harm and suffering, we all want to benefit the rest of the world. Even if all they have to go on is “to be good is to be like God”, they’ll instinctively drive toward the harm-reducing, well-being-maximising acts, and the Argumentum ad Dictionarium only comes out in the wash of post hoc rationalisation. We’re driven to be good, rather than bad, and broadly agree on what it means to act those ways even if we disagree when it comes to the tedious, academic unpacking of those terms.

The exceptions are usually driven either by a pragmatic need to break the vague Rules of Goodness (committing a theft because you need money) or a misunderstanding of what constitutes benefit to people (committing a theft because you believe it to be victimless or out of quasi-nihilistic self-interest). Even in the edge-cases of outright psychopathy, we attribute actions to a misfiring and a misinterpretation of morality rather than a drive to be evil.

Calling those exceptions “stupidity” may be an over-simplification – and I have something saved in my drafts folder about a better and more powerful definition of “stupid” to work with. Yet, “stupid” conveys the idea: we want to be good, we all agree that good means maximising well-being and reducing suffering… But we suck at the analytical component of figuring out what that all means in reality.

Mother Theresa thought she was doing good, and reducing suffering, and bringing dignity to people through bringing them, and herself, closer to God – yet those with a keen eye for detail may have seen suffering increase as she deprived the poor and sick of medical treatment while keeping them in squalor, and then spent her donation money on establishing convents. We can’t deny her intentions to do good, and her justifications that her acts were, ultimately, good. And I don’t think it’s a mere disagreement on the definition of good – she wanted to reduce harm and increase well-being, to bring dignity to people. She simply approached it in a… well, somewhat questionable way from the perspective of an outsider with identical motivations and values. Stupidity? Perhaps. Certainly a failure to objectively assess the situation and figure out exactly how to bring about more tangible well-being and happiness.

Look at, say, most racists, sexists or homophobes amongst others with an -ist or -phobe levelled at them. They probably don’t think that what they’re doing is bad. Even the hardened ones. They believe their opinions to be innocent and valid. They try to be good… at least, they don’t try to be evil. But do they understand the harm they cause? Is that because they’re stupid? Perhaps. “Stupid”, again, is not quite the right term – it’s the lack of a decent assessment of their actions.

This is perhaps where the social justice world fails to get through to them – by believing that a bigot is out to cause harm rather than simply misunderstanding whether they cause harm in the first place, they alienate rather than educate. If we approached them as having good intentions, we might be able to convince someone that their (erroneous) approach to implementing those intentions is where the harm comes from. People who say #AllLivesMatter just don’t understand the need to say #BlackLivesMatter, they don’t intend to say #BlackLivesDoNotMatter. Ignorance – not wilful ignorance, just plain, innocent, blameless ignorance – rather than malice is at work here.

“Where’s the harm?” is, ultimately, what hides underneath all the usual defences of hatred and intolerance. At the thin end, someone might defend a racist joke because “it’s just a joke!”; they’re asking where is the harm in something they perceive as truly harmless because they literally don’t see any harm derived from it. And it goes all the way to the extremes of “yes, I might be herding these people into a gas chamber, but, it’s just following orders so I’m not really complicit, and, besides, it’s purifying our race so is obviously beneficial – if we don’t gas this menace we’ll just suffer in the long term”. Okay, maybe that last one requires a little more work to get around… but it’s work we’ll happily do in the name of being good.

We’ll always find a motive to justify ourselves. We’ll always find a reasoning to back up our acts. We wouldn’t do it if we weren’t, fundamentally, driven to be good – because otherwise we’d be happy to admit that, yes, our actions are harmful to others and we don’t care. We’d admit to wanting to cause harm, minimise well-being, and be evil. Yet this is largely not what we see.

We wouldn’t be happy with flawed reasoning if we had the self-awareness to fully analyse it and come to a better conclusion, and then re-address our actions appropriately.

Or, in a soundbite; we want to be good, but we’re too dumb to figure out how to do it properly.

20 Rules

I found this in the drafts folder so decided to publish as-is. A list of 20 rules to live by for the fledgling rationalist.

Well, they’re more like guidelines

1) Question everything – but question what you agree with more. What you don’t agree with has evidently been questioned enough.

2) Don’t hero worship. In reality they’re no better than you, and they’ll disappoint you on at least one thing eventually.

3) Hold your allies to a higher standard than your opponents. They don’t deserve the echo chamber.

4) Revise all of your values and commitments at least every six months. If you’re not embarrassed by your past self, you haven’t evolved as a person.

5) Know that smart people are a myth. There are two kinds of people: idiots, and idiots who are aware of it and so take steps to mitigate the impact of their idiocy. Some in the second category even succeed.

6) E-Prime is (quasi-intentional irony) your troubleshooting friend, but not a way of life. It can help you see where you’ve masked your opinion as a fact.

7) Not believing in God doesn’t automatically make you bright. Some of the dumbest people in the world are the most strident atheists.  Some of the smartest still pray, for whatever reason the reason.

8) Be aware of logic and reason as things. Don’t mistake them for “logic” and “reason” the buzzwords. The latter only get used to find like-minded individuals and silence the unlike-minded.

9) Learn to be confidently tentative. You can’t be absolutely sure of anything, but you can aim to be absolutely sure of something to an absolutely sure measure of error.

10) Those that try to cross a road by using a laser speedometer, a calculator, and deducing the optimal time to cross from base principles will wait there for hours for the perfect time… and will still probably get run over by a bike that they didn’t see.

11) Don’t laugh at religious ritual – you do silly thinks like turn-it-off-and-on-again, shake dead batteries, press the remote control buttons harder when it doesn’t work, blow on NES cartridges, and press-and-hold the “ON” button on your computer… all while having no idea why those things work or even if they do.

12) It’s the 21st century. Just Fucking Google It.

13) Learn to read at least one form of basic logical notation, even if you’re doing it to show off it means you’ll know more actual logic than most people who use the word “logic”.

14) Citing the dog Latin name for a fallacy doesn’t make it fallacious. Tell us why, and be precise. You don’t need to know its name if you can say why its wrong; while the name doesn’t help you if you can’t.

15) Shun your “in” group when you need to think. Read the stuff written by your “out” group instead.

16) Don’t use identities as a substitute for a personality or belief system. People will fill in the connotations themselves and you’ll spend more time explaining why you’re not like that.

17) Don’t use your subjective tastes as objective judgement. You hating a band has everything to do with you, and nothing to do with the band.

18) Know that you can revise for an IQ test, and that the only thing IQ measures is your ability to take IQ tests. The fact that libertarians score statistically higher on these tests says all you need to know.

19) Pedantry is the last resort of the intellectually insecure. If you can correct someone’s spelling, punctuation and grammar, it means it did its job perfectly fine in the first place.

20) Always do sober what you promise to do drunk – that’ll teach you to shut your mouth. Try to do drunk what you think you do sober, that’ll teach you what your instincts really are. Except drive, obviously.

RationalWiki on its “issues”

Jebus, you people – whoever “you people” are – still insist on linking to this and commenting on it and whatnot… Here’s an update since this post is over two years old now:

  1. I no longer regularly edit RW. This is partially because I’ve now quit all forms of movement or group-based rationality/skepticism because it’s no longer much fun nor worthwhile for me, but mostly because I’ve expended what I could contribute to the wiki’s mainspace that I’d consider “good”. If time, motivation and the right subject all aligned, I would start writing for the mainspace again without hesitation. Until then, it’s quiet retirement for me doing things I find much more interesting.
  2. I still stand by the take-home point here. If you want to declare that “rationalism/skepticism should stay clear of social issues”, you’re declaring that a particular topic is out-of-bounds. And anyone with a working knowledge of skepticism and human rationality should be able to identify the main reasons why someone might declare a subject “out of bounds” – it’s never a good one. The environment and climate change is largely a social issue, religious persecution is largely a social issue, and political opinion is largely a social issue. If I’m not allowed to take a look at, for example, the statistical wage-gap and what it says about our treatment of men and women in society “because it’s a social issue”, then I’d like to know a much better reason than “fucking Tumblr-SJWs always getting offended over nothing”.
  3. Oh, while I’m at it… why Tumblr? I have never used that site. I resent its fairly useless interface, poor usability, and it’s – what can only be described as fundamentally insane – approach to nested comments. You cannot find me on that site, you probably will never find me even re-blogging from it. When you say something like “tumblr feminist” I have literally no idea what the fuck you mean outside of “something bad that’s bad because I said its bad just because”.

I’m putting this miniature rant in extended blogified form here because it’s one of those things I just need to link to on occasion. I’m pretty sure I say this every time the subject comes up, so this should stop me sounding like more of a broken record than I already am. If you’re one of the people who came here via the search terms that WordPress tells me directs traffic here, you can close the tab or press the back button, I very much doubt this is what you want to hear. 

The context is this:

RationalWiki should stay the hell away from social issues, politics, gender, and all that jazz, and focus on “skepticism” instead.

Statements to this effect pop up on a monthly basis like clockwork, and I take immense issue with it every single time. Here’s why.

Your basic “rationalism” and “skepticism” ideas, tropes and challenges are already-solved problems. To be good little skeptics we just need to toe the party line. Religion is brainwashing! Creationism is stupid! Homeopathy is bunk! Scientologists are lunatics!! We just need to quote the right peoples’ soundbites, and don’t need to think about what those soundbites mean. Or we can just memorise the dog-Latin names for logical fallacies so we can throw them out without realising that ad hominem doesn’t actually mean “crass insult”.

It requires next to no thought to deal with this stuff. It’s trivial and the work has been done already on it. Hell, conclusively proving that psychics and mediums are a load of shit dates back to Harry Houdini and hasn’t really developed since. The problem is solved, and countless projects other than RationalWiki exist to have such a narrow scope.

But social issues are ongoing, and they are still under debate, and still out there in a sense where they can be preached to a congregation. We don’t need to convince a fledgling skeptic that chiropractic medicine is a load of baloney, but we might need to convince them that the phrase “I don’t mind gay people so long as they don’t ram their sexuality down my throat” is an even bigger con. And one likely to cause just as much harm as cracking someone’s spine to cure cancer.

Look at the average teenage non-believer that’s just discovered Richard Dawkins, and you’ll see that they’re almost certainly white, straight, cis and male, and probably affluent enough for a college education. So, deary me they tick all the boxes. There is under-representation in the “movement” (for lack of a better term) and that is simply a fact. Now, you can disagree whether this is a “problem” and you can disagree on the “why” (hence why this isn’t in the simple “solved problems” bucket) but you have to concede that at least something is up with this, and that it’s worth noting. In fact, I’d go as far to say that you can’t even disagree that this situation is sad as fuck. It’s just a pattern that we see everywhere – e.g., how I recently moved from one job where I had 10 female colleagues out of 19 to one where I have 2 female colleagues out of 30. Why is that? And why does asking “why is that?” have to take a back seat to debunking astrology for the 27 billionth time?

Come on, if you’re editing something called RationalWiki, or more broadly engage with the “rationalist” and “skeptical” movements, it’s because you self declare yourself to be a “rationalist” or a “skeptic”. That can mean whatever the hell you want it to mean, but if it’s not going to be about making the world a better place then what is your fucking point of existing?

If you want to throw off the shackles of doctrine, dogma and religion, then why do so just so you can become more of an asshole?

So yes, I want to make the world a less toxic place for people who have been sidelined in the past. I’m not always successful, I’m not perfect, but that’s my aim, and I listen to the kind of people who might be able to guide me towards that intention. What the hell is wrong with that? These “gender issues” still impact on the world very much, and are areas where we – as the self-appointed intellectual superiors of the planet, it seems – can actually make a real difference.

And we, that is, RationalWiki, are making a difference. People take note of what the wiki says on the subject. People complain about what the wiki says on the subject, and if you’re not pissing people off you’re doing something wrong. So that’s fine by me, it’s going in the right direction.

But guess the fuck what? We actually suck at the subject. We’re not dominated by it, we don’t cover it very well, and the discussion side of the site is still pretty anti-social. If you take an objective look at recent changes to the wiki, we’re not actually gender obsessed, nowhere near. We get a lot of talk pages from “controversial” articles that continue to attract attention, and dear gods in the seven heavens the Thunderf00t talk page just keeps on giving…

But why those?

Why not homeopathy?

Because homeopathy is one of those solved problems. All rationalists already think it’s bollocks, and those who are pro-homeopathic know better than to try and edit war with RationalWiki about it. It’s foreign territory and outside the echo chamber. But when we have pages on privilege, or the “Amazing” Atheist telling women we should give their rapists a medal, it’s very different. They come, and they challenge and they complain. It shows that people exist within the self-declared “skeptic” and “rationalist” and “atheist” communities who haven’t yet woken up to these gender or race, or sexuality issues. And I’m not even sorry to say it, but they are just fundamentally wrong on those issues.

In short, it’s an area we can preach in, and should preach in, but actually we don’t. It’s just that even a smidge of that sort of thing is enough to make people feel uncomfortable (“Rape Culture? But ”I’M” not a rapist!!!!”) and go on the defensive.

You know what, never mind. Laughing at Conservapedia because “ZOMG!! Teh Assfly is teh dumbs!!!!” is so much easier.

Things that were once impossible…

This is something posted on the RationalWiki Facebook group. I figured I ploughed enough effort into the response to immortalise it here with some minor modifications to blogify it.

Sounds ridiculous? Of course it does, but that’s no reason to dismiss it out of hand. All manner of things would have seemed impossible once upon a time – steam engines, flying machines, space rockets, but they became a reality and now we take them for granted.

Here’s the difference between these “impossible things” and the woo this guy was actually talking about: those “impossible” things were eventually demonstrated to actually work.

Here’s a further difference: those “impossible” things were never really impossible to begin with. Unlikely, yes. Beyond the technology of the time, certainly. But the measure of “impossible”, as used by skeptics and closet rationalists, is considerably better defined than that.

No one dismisses things that might be shown to work in the future. There are plenty of examples; quantum computing, for instance, or discovering exactly what “dark energy” really is. We primarily, if not exclusively, outright dismiss things that people claim to work now and yet refuse to demonstrate, or are incapable of demonstrating. More often than not, the claim gets made, the demonstration is attempted and then fails. And a demonstration that fails is pretty good grounds to dismiss the assertion that the demonstration worked.

Say, for example, that I take leave of my senses and claim that I can lift large, heavy objects (like cars, trucks and X Wings) with my mind. The fact that, hypothetically, one day in the far flung future, there may be some mechanism by which this can be achieved (latent magical powers, some application of technology, or whatever fanciful idea you can conceive), does not in any way negate the fact that I cannot, at this moment in time, lift a car, truck or X Wing with my mind.

I can claim that I can do that all I like. But I can’t demonstrate it. This is what we call a “fact”. Indeed, that I can’t do it now will remain as such a fact long after someone has (hypothetically) demonstrated it happening in the future.

To use a more concrete and extant example, the fact that today we have jet fighters (and once, passenger aircraft) that can break the sound barrier doesn’t negate the fact that in the First World War no fighter planes could break the sound barrier. People had strong, and very reasonable, grounds to doubt that the technology of 1915 could achieve that.

But that’s an advance in technology. Technology is something that develops. This isn’t the same as most woo – not least because no skeptic doubts what technology can potentially achieve. The limits of our knowledge and ability are well defined, and we know what we can potentially do. What we can’t do, though, is retroactively remove what we know to be the case now. Just as someone demonstrating lifting a car with mind control in a thousand or a million years time doesn’t mean I can do that now, then no amount of new developments in the future will circumvent what we know to be impossible now. Whatever unifies quantum mechanics and special relativity won’t retroactively stop the Schrodinger equation accurately predicting the energies of a two-body atomic system. It won’t magically change all electronic orbitals so that they no longer obey spherical harmonics. Whatever mechanism allows us to get from A to B faster than light, it certainly won’t involve simply accelerating an object with conventional rocket engines. That wouldn’t require our understanding of the world now to be wrong, it would require every experimental observation of how the universe is, it’s very fundamental nature, to be somehow altered.

Now, those may seem like esoteric examples from science, but it’s true of far more basic things. What we know now won’t be negated by future discoveries and/or inventions. Everything we learn later will add to our current knowledge, not destroy it. And yes, this is even true of most protoscience. Old theories are reinterpreted through new information and new theories (the idea of current knowledge being “wrong” is heavily naive and simplistic) and develop accordingly. No one dismisses progress happening like this. Indeed, it’s embraced.

Rational people only dismiss assertions that our current knowledge will magically be invalidated in the future.

The tl;dr, though, is that the claim that people simply dismiss stuff “out of hand” because it hasn’t been demonstrated “yet” is just a bullshit excuse for the fact that they can’t demonstrate it. And, quite likely, never will.